Getting feedback right Part 2: How do we provide clarity?

As discussed in yesterday’s post, I am currently working on the assumption that there are only 3 meaningful purposes of feedback:

  • To provide clarity
  • To increase pupils’ effort
  • To increase pupils’ aspiration

I had planned to discuss how we might go about giving each of these kinds of feedback in one post, but on reflection it seems sensible to divide the how of giving feedback into 3 separate posts which will discuss each process in detail.

So, first off is providing clarity. It ought to go without saying that if pupils aren’t clear about how to improve, they’re unlikely to get any better. The chances are that they will embed mistakes through repeated practice and end up getting good at doing it wrong. This is not to be encouraged. As teachers it should be reasonably obvious to us when a pupil has misunderstood something and when they have made a mistake due to carelessness or lack or effort. Our problem is that we face Hobson’s Choice: we know that if we just point out some of the mistakes pupils have made we allow them to embed bad practice, but if we point out every mistake we overload pupils’ ability to learn.

So here’s my tentative solution. If we insist that pupils annotate every piece of work with the mistake they are able to spot, our clarification can then be applied with pin-point accuracy at the exact they have identified as where they are ready to learn. They will received feedback only on those areas they’ve identified as containing errors or misunderstandings.

We all know that pupils’ self assessment is often rubbish, we let’s prevent them from writing meaningless descriptive comments about how they feel about their work and instead let’s make them proofread, error check and highlight the areas where they feel uncertain or where they might have taken a risk. This approach forces them to engage meta-cognitively with their work and think about they have produced in a more or less meaningful way.

I realise there is a weakness here: what about those errors which pupils make unknowingly, or in the belief they are right? These are errors which they may be unable to spot and therefore errors they will continue to make. What do we do about that? Again, we’re faced with a choice: we can either tell them what to do, or we can probe their misunderstanding by asking questions. I don’t believe there’s a right answer on this one; I think it’s up to you as a teacher to use your professional judgment to decide whether it will have more impact to tell or question. But it’s worth knowing that there are consequences to every choice.

If we choose to tell pupils the answer, then they may not value it. It may be that they fail to remember the answer as they haven’t had to think about it. But equally, if could that they will bother remember and value the answer; the outcome is uncertain. If we choose to ask a question to probe a pupil’s understanding we run the risk that they won’t arrive at a correct answer and their misconceptions will be embedded. There’s also the problem that it takes time to think about something new and pupils may decide to ignore the question. However, if the do decide to answer the question and they have the necessary knowledge to think meaningfully about it then they are perhaps more likely to both remember and understand the correct information.

For your convenience, I’ve distilled this thinking into a handy flowchart:

Feedback to provide clarification

Feedback to provide clarification

Next up, I’ll be thinking about how to provide feedback designed to increase pupils’ effort. In the meantime, if you think I’ve neglected anything interesting or important, please do leave a comment.

26 Responses to Getting feedback right Part 2: How do we provide clarity?

  1. […] Getting feedback right Part 2: How do we provide clarity? Getting feedback right Part 3: How can we increase pupils’ effort? Getting feedback right Part 4: How can we increase pupils’ aspiration? […]

  2. […] As discussed in yesterday’s post, I am currently working on the assumption that there are only 3 meaningful purposes of feedback: To provide clarity To increase pupils’ effort To increase pupils’ aspiration I had planned to discuss how we might go…  […]

  3. ExecutiveHT says:

    Dear David,

    Enjoying this series of posts – one of our R&D Communities are looking at developing success criteria to help with peer & self assessment as part of aiding clarity for students, it can be found here:
    http://leadinglearner.me/2014/03/05/randd-community-developing-solo-success-criteria/

    Will you be adding something on success criteria in one of the posts. Should it be with clarity?

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Stephen. I am ideologically opposed to success criteria: I do not advocate their use. Instead I would encourage teachers to deconstruct exemplars, model expert thought processes and practise practise practise.

  4. musotim says:

    How would this work on a piece of work that is not written but which has a temporal nature, such as an aural or oral task in MFL or, for personal relevance, a musical performance or composition? Could it be adapted?

    • David Didau says:

      The flowchart was designed with written work in mind but I think it could be adapted fairly easily, couldn’t it? The underlying principles are the same, no?

      • musotim says:

        How do you annotate and highlight work that exists in time, rather than physically on paper? Even if you record, there is no way to annotate a particular section – beyond “the bit at 0:34” which seems vague at best.

  5. MLeonard says:

    excellent posts – thank you so much for helping me to clarify my thinking!
    However I am now in a tizz about how to apply this to science – I think it is about the types of questions we get them to answer in science that it doesn’t lend itself well to these sort of ideas – It seems to me that almost all other subjects are predominantly skills based, where in Science we have to teach a massive knowledge base so we struggle to find time to include the skills base that lends itself well to this kind of clarification. Possibly I simply need to get used to taking the risk of asking them to write explanations of concepts in their book (something naturally avoided in Science as you often end up with gobbledygook!!)

  6. David Didau says:

    So, are you suggesting that feedback serves a different purpose in science? In my mind this process seems to apply equally to all subjects, but I could well be missing something. Also, I’d reject the idea that most subjects are skills based – only if taught very badly!

  7. MLeonard says:

    hmmm – not sure how to explain intelligibly what im trying to get across – certainly not that feedback serves a different process, simply that I am finding it hard to consistently apply what those from other disciplines tell me about how they manage to get it to work. I have to confess that it has always been the weakest area of my teaching and I am working hard on improving!!

    We seem to do an awful lot of “these are the facts that you need to know – get them in notes in your own form” work – and I do believe that we teach far more knowledge than other subjects – which means that this sort of teaching is unavoidable – so a lot of work in the books is much more “what is the name for this, what is this fact, have you comprehended this concept”. Due to the huge knowledge base we get very little time to then redraft this sort of “explain this” answer on a regular basis. I am in no way saying this does not apply to other subjects – and I do think it is to do with the type of questions and information I am asking them to put in their books – so maybe this isn’t so much a feedback issue I have as a questioning issue!

    Thanks you for being a sounding board – as I have written this some of my thinking has become clearer too me!!

    In science, when they explain a concepts, they are almost always unconfident about whether they have got the concept explained or not – they would find it very hard to spot where the mistakes are – Im not sure how I could get them to proof read a long “explain” answer – I can them to assess if they have short answers “right” but my impression is this is not what you were aiming at – longer answers they struggle to mark as if they don’t get it, they don’t get it – is your point that I ask them to pin point WHY they don’t get it – at which point did they lose the thread? Is this proof reading fundamentally different to the self assessing with a mark scheme/success criteria that I have been working on?

  8. In this post, feedback seems to involve annotating pupils’ work. In English, this usually involves correcting spelling, amending phrasing, inserting punctuation and so on. But thids process assumes agreement between teacher and learner about the genre, purpose, audience (etc.) of the work. Pupils’ real problem is often that they don’t understand these things, which is why they keep on making the same mistakes. Yet feedback that delves into the deeper structure of writing is much harder to do than proof-reading, and may in fact best be done verbally with the class. I base this view on the theory of new literacy studies (academic literacy), which can be applied at school as well as at HE level.

  9. […] As discussed in yesterday’s post, I am currently working on the assumption that there are only 3 meaningful purposes of feedback: To provide clarity To increase pupils’ effort To increase pupils’ aspiration I had planned to discuss how we might go about giving each of these kinds of feedback in one post, but on reflection  […]

  10. […] My advice, for what it’s worth is develop pupils’ error checking skills. I discussed in this post how proofreading might be used to force pupils to engage meta-cognitively with their work, and to […]

  11. Heidi says:

    Hello David,
    Just letting you know that we are going to test this out at our school (using the flow diagram). It fits in well with our plans for Sept 2014. Many thanks blueprintteacher.
    @blueprintteach

    • Heidi says:

      We have begun to think about how the flow chart can be used with Ks1 pupils. Any tips?

      • David Didau says:

        Well, I assume most of the feedback has to be verbal? The real problem here is one of working memory – how do you get very young children to hold problems & solutions in their minds at the same time? Maybe some sort of visual representation? Flashcards? Interesting problem. Where are you based?

        I think the metacognitive qualities of proofreading will still be useful (maybe even more so) to get children to identify where they need feedback

        • Heidi says:

          Hello David,
          Many thanks for your response!
          I am not a KS1 expert, but I know that the question of how it can be used with young children would come up in a staff meeting.

          The school where I teach is in Boscombe, Dorset.
          I have found many of your discussions really interesting; and have started pointing the trainees at the Scitt bases and the head teacher at my school in the direction of your blog and your publications.

          I am keenly awaiting part 3 and 4 of your feedback blogs!

          On a different matter.
          Do you by any chance do any input to schools about the new curriculum; or do you know someone who does?

          Many thanks Heidi @blueprintteach

          • Heidi says:

            Funny I should ask that! I have just come across your curriculum design training courses! I will try to get booked on one. Many thanks!

  12. […] often showing them how to correct it, and so prolonging their learned helplessness. Then I read this post from the Learning Spy himself, David Didau, where he states; “ If we insist that pupils annotate […]

  13. […] a few moments on Part 1 (which discusses the different purposes for giving feedback) and Part 2 (which looks at how to increase pupils’ understanding) before reading any […]

  14. […] spending a few moments on Part 1 (which discusses the different purposes for giving feedback) and Part 2 (which looks at how to increase pupils’ understanding) before reading any […]

  15. […] find it helpful to go over  Part 1 (which discusses the different purposes for giving feedback) Part 2 (which looks at how to increase pupils’ understanding) and Part 3 (which considers how to get […]

  16. […] Getting feedback right Part 2: How do we provide clarity […]

  17. […] Getting feedback right Part 2: How do we provide clarity […]

  18. […] needed for students to genuinely reflect upon and respond to teacher feedback. Providing absolute clarity for feedback is so important too. The team now differentiate feedback – offering a range of […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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